The U.K.'s two leading political parties offered their first sacrificial lambs in reaction to revelations that taxpayers have funded dubious living expenses for dozens of politicians.
The disciplinary actions against members of both the ruling Labour Party and the opposition Conservatives stem from a spiralling crisis in which the widely admired British political system -- proudly known as "the mother of all Parliaments" -- has suddenly morphed into the mother of all scandals.
It started with the Daily Telegraph newspaper's publication of politicians' expense reports -- which aren't yet in the public record -- detailing how dozens of members of Parliament have been reimbursed for home expenses that range from the petty (dog food and light bulbs) to the extravagant (repairs to swimming pools and the cleaning of a moat).
Past scandals, such as "sleaze" allegations that played a part in sinking John Major's Conservative government in the mid-1990s, usually damaged one party or another. The current affair, on the other hand, is claiming victims on all sides, undermining public confidence in the entire political system.
"It is easily the most corrosive scandal in terms of the state of [British] politics that I can think of in almost the last 100 years," said Philip Cowley, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham.
That has thrown political leaders of all stripes into scramble mode. On Thursday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron both rolled out tough disciplinary measures.
Mr. Brown said his party has suspended member of Parliament Elliot Morley, a former environment minister, over allegations that he claimed expenses of more than £16,000 ($24,222) for interest payments on a mortgage he had paid off more than 18 months earlier. Said Mr. Brown: "We have a right to expect the highest standards of everybody in public life and where these standards are transgressed and where mistakes are made … we have got to take action."
Earlier Thursday, Andrew MacKay, a Conservative member of Parliament, resigned as aide to Mr. Cameron over what the party said was an "unacceptable" expenses claim. Mr. MacKay was caught up in an embarrassing situation involving rules that allow parliamentarians from outside central London to claim living expenses on a second residence, either in the British capital or their constituency. Mr. Mackay claimed a full "second-home allowance" on his London address -- while his wife, fellow Conservative MP Julie Kirkbride, claimed the full allowance for another home.
"Examination of Mr. MacKay's past allowances revealed an unacceptable situation that would not stand up to reasonable public scrutiny," a spokesman for Mr. Cameron said.
The two didn't deny that they had claimed the expenses, but gave explanations for their actions that touched on faults in the government's system for reimbursing politicians for the living expenses they incur in the course of their public service.
Mr. Morley said the claim was a mistake of "sloppy accounting in a very loose and shambolic allowance system." Mr. MacKay said the arrangement had been agreed to by a parliamentary official, but that the claims were an "error in judgment."
The moves by Messrs. Cameron and Brown come in advance of June 4 European elections and local authority elections. While the expense claims have hit both parties, Mr. Cameron has at times outmaneuvered the prime minister by coming out first with pointed criticisms of his own party for their claims, then laying out reforms to tackle the abuses and threatening party members with suspension.
The news overwhelmed the parties' launching of their campaigns for next month's elections, underscoring that no mainstream party is likely to do well from the scandal. Parties without members of Parliament, such as the environmentally focused Green Party and the anti-immigration British National Party, are predicted by some to get more support in June's elections because of this.
On Monday, the British National Party launched its campaign for the election with a stunt onstage at a press conference: People wearing pig masks portrayed politicians feeding at troughs filled with money, and were chased away by angry blue-collar workers.
Also under pressure in the furor, some members of Parliament say, is the Labour Party's Michael Martin, who as speaker of the House of Commons is chairman of the body that administers the British Parliament and has responsibility for politicians' expenses.
Mr. Martin, who as speaker also acts as a moderator in House of Commons debates, had been at the forefront of politicians' attempts to stop the release of expense details, and in a house debate on Tuesday angrily slapped down criticisms of his handling of the case.
According to several members of Parliament, there is a move to drum up interest for a vote of no-confidence in Mr. Martin.
Mr. Martin could not be reached for comment.
In another blow to the reputation of Parliament and the Labour Party, a committee at the House of Lords, the U.K.'s second house, recommended that two Labour peers be suspended for up to six months after an inquiry found them guilty of misconduct.
Lord Peter Truscott and Lord Thomas Taylor were caught in a sting by journalists at the Sunday Times newspaper who posed as company lobbyists. The two lords are accused of offering to change legislation in return for cash. The two have denied any wrongdoing. The Sunday Times is owned by News Corp., which also owns Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal.